On the Matter of Henry Kissinger's Death
I've written almost enough about Kissinger.
Last night the hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World was wining and dining with some of the best international relations scholars in the business. Midway through the appetizer course I received a text from a good friend and Biden administration official saying, “so excited to read your Kissinger obituary.” Alerting my colleagues, we checked our various social media feeds to confirm the news.
Once it was indeed confirmed, we returned to our food and less awkward and painful topics of conversation, like climate change and war in the Middle East.
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This is to say that there are plenty of Kissinger obituaries one can read for those who are interested. There is the New York Times account1 or Michael Hirsh’s mostly positive assessment in Foreign Policy or Spencer Ackerman’s Rolling Stone evisceration2 or, hey, maybe the primary source documents that Kissinger took with him when he left office and fought tooth and nail to keep from the National Archives. I’m sure that Niall Ferguson is somewhere polishing a hosannah to publish somewhere.
Contrary to popular belief and the immaculate professional sheen that is always on display here at Drezner’s World, my hard-working staff had no pre-written obituary. And i feel no need to write one. That is probably because I have already written twice about Kissinger this year already. The first, in May, marked his 100th birthday.
The key paragraph from that newsletter:
Henry Kissinger will pass from the scene at some point. As the Washington Post noted, “one thing that… observers can agree on is that when Kissinger does die, it will be a raucous day on Twitter.” When that day comes, remember this point: what Henry Kissinger figured out before anyone else was how to monetize his career in public service, and he excelled at that.
I also wrote about him in July for Politico, on the occasion of China’s Xi Jinping rolling out the red carpet for him. The relevant portions of that essay:
If the Chinese are attempting a nostalgia play for the Sino-American relationship of decades past, Kissinger’s motivations are entirely rooted in the present. Kissinger’s reputation has taken a hit in recent years, as his past policy mistakes and attempts to suck up to power have become clearer to the untrained eye. Great power politics, however, remains the one area where even Kissinger’s bitterest critics acknowledge that he had some juice. As U.S. relations with China sour, Kissinger can burnish his reputation by playing the role of senior statesperson just by showing up and wowing everyone with his intellectual acumen as a centenarian.
There is something more than that for Kissinger, however. This trip is a reminder of Kissinger’s one true innovation throughout his career: inventing the for-profit third act of a career in public service. Before him, former policy principals usually wrote a memoir, gave the occasional foreign policy speech, and maybe became the head of a nonprofit. Kissinger was always hungrier. As I wrote in The Ideas Industry, “The traditional route for ex-policy principals was to take a sinecure at a think tank. A successful for-profit consultancy, however, is far more lucrative than a think-tank fellowship. Henry Kissinger pioneered this approach in 1982 when he and Brent Scowcroft founded Kissinger Associates to offer advisory services for corporate clients.” Kissinger’s selling point to clients was his access to the corridors of power — not just in Washington, but Beijing. This also explains why Kissinger has resisted the hawkish turn in U.S. foreign policy towards Russia and China; such a turn threatens his privileged access to world leaders.
You know what corporate clients really want to hear? Exactly the kind of insider gossip that Kissinger trafficked in throughout his entire career. This means that his latest sojourn to Beijing will not just shower him with press coverage but with continued corporate support. He’ll be able to dine out on these latest meetings for months with CEOs.
As it turns out, he only had months left.
It is fitting that most of the Kissinger obituaries note that they learned about his death from a statement by his consulting firm. That was what Kissinger cared about the most after he left office in January 1977.
I’ve written about Kissinger twice already in 2023. I’ve hit my quota.
Bravo to the Times for the headline accompanying a separate story: “Diplomat Who Long Held the Global Stage Was Both Celebrated and Reviled.” Ten out of ten, no notes.
R.I.P. to the multiple spleens Ackerman lost in writing that obit.